Building An Event Strategy That Connects With Your Community

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Marketing Podcast with Isaac Watson

Isaac Watson, a guest on the Duct Tape Marketing PodcastIn this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Isaac Watson. He is an event strategist and entrepreneur who founded Kickass Conferences in 2016. He has produced over 50 conferences and gatherings worldwide, specializing in event strategy and design for communities. Isaac is also the co-host of the Make It Kickass podcast.

Key Takeaway:

Events can serve as a powerful strategy for building a community around a business or brand. A comprehensive approach to event planning starts with developing a strategy that aligns with your business goals and creating impactful experiences for your community. Furthermore, a successful event strategy involves three components: strong community engagement, careful consideration of available resources, and a clear event vision. There should be a focus on fostering relationships between the community of your business and creating a space for attendees to support each other.

Questions I ask Isaac Watson:

  • [02:15] Why should people think about events as part of the marketing mix?
  • [03:09] What are some of the most successful kinds of event marketing strategies that you’ve seen implemented and that you’ve probably implemented on behalf of some of your clients?
  • [04:19] How did COVID change the landscape of the event business permanently?
  • [06:38] Are there technologies, specific tools, or software that you recommend to businesses these days?
  • [07:34] What is your process for getting to the heart of an effective strategy for an event?
  • [08:27] You’ve mentioned the word community several times, a community can be your customers or the people that you want to turn into customers right?
  • [09:46] How do you measure success? Do you have a set process for that or is part of the to-go with KPIs?
  • [11:02] How important are all the things that are not necessarily the core topics of an event like food, breaks, or entertainment?
  • [13:10] The first thing one should do is define what type of event is, what are the goals; and based on that, define the strategy correct?
  • [16:13] How do you get people to think in terms of the event integrating with everything else they’ve been doing particularly when it comes to marketing?
  • [16:58] How comprehensive do you take an approach or does it come down to what the client wants and what their budget is?

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(01:14): Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Isaac Watson. He is an event strategist and entrepreneur who founded Kickass conferences in 2016. He's produced over 50 conferences and gatherings worldwide, specializing in event strategy and design for communities. And he also is the co-host of the Make It Kick Ass podcast. So we're gonna talk about events today. Isaac, welcome to the show.

Isaac Watson (01:41): Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.

John Jantsch (01:43): So how did you get into events? Let's start there. How how'd you fall into this business?

Isaac Watson (01:48): Uh, you know, I was working in communications and marketing at an art school. Was doing a little bit of public programming, a little, you know, artist receptions and guest lectures and things like that. And that kind of wet my whistle and I started volunteering for the World Domination Summit planning team. And that's kind of how I cut my teeth on conference planning.

John Jantsch (02:07): I've attended that, uh, conference three times. So I was a speaker 2014 a long time ago. ,

Isaac Watson (02:14): I I

John Jantsch (02:14): Remember that. So if, if you're talking to a business, let's say that doesn't do events at all and they're thinking, ah, should we add that to the mix? You know, are there reasons you tell people, yeah, you should be doing events? I, I'm sure there's some reasons people shouldn't be, but for the most part, you know, why should people think about that as part of the marketing mix?

Isaac Watson (02:29): We usually find that events work really well for any business that's trying to build a community. Events can really serve as this catalyst to like give the community energy and keep up it propelling forward. Um, and I think, uh, one thing that, that people don't think of all the time is that if you're gonna do an event, especially a conference right? Like something big, something annual, something that you want to do on a cycle, it's kind of like adding a whole other product to your lineup and you have to treat it like that.

John Jantsch (02:56): Yeah. And it's kind of becomes a yearlong, uh, beast I think for a lot of people too. So what are most successful, I mean, you gave kind of reasons for doing it, but then obviously there are good ways to do it, bad ways to do it. What are some of the most successful kind of event marketing strategies that you've seen implemented and you've probably implemented on behalf of some of your clients?

Isaac Watson (03:16): Yeah, for event marketing, we always like to think about it in three phases. And it's a cycle, right? Especially for an annual thing, you have to keep repeating it. So you have to focus on your pre-event marketing where you're actually communicating everything that you're gonna deliver for your event to people. Um, then you have to focus on your intra event marketing. So while it's actually happening, how are you continuing to market that event both to the people who are there Yeah. Who have chosen to attend and to the people who aren't there who are looking from afar, right? Because you're helping sell that for the next time. And then you have to do phase three, which is often something people forget about, which is post event marketing, recapping everything that you've done, prepping people for the next time around and keeping that cycle rolling forward.

John Jantsch (04:01): You mentioned WDS, which is no longer around, but I mean they did, you did maybe if you were involved in a great job of, I mean I think 60% of the next year was sold out, you know, before the thing you know, ended the year four. I mean, that's a pretty fabulous way to, to build momentum going into the next year. So I'm about ready to stop mentioning the word covid on my show , but darn it coming back. How did it change the landscape of your business? I mean, you worked right through it, right? So what is

Isaac Watson (04:29): Yes,

John Jantsch (04:30): And, and I don't need to hear like how you adapted. I'd really rather hear more kinda like where are we now? Has, you know, has the landscape current changed?

Isaac Watson (04:40): Yeah, I think that the, the big wake up call was we can do virtual events and we can do them. Well. A lot of people do them terribly. And I think where we are now is in this reconciliation between kind of the e economic impacts of where we stand now with inflation and layoffs and budget constraints and people not being able to attend in-person events like they used to. And balancing that with everything that people hate about virtual events and the zoom fatigue that we're still carrying that trauma with us, right? Of just being isolated and locked into our spaces. And so it's really about crafting something that's intentional and focused on the attendees experience, whether that's gonna be a virtual or in-person affair.

John Jantsch (05:26): Yeah, I I think in the very beginning people were just happy that we could get the technology to work and so that like 10 people could talk to, you know, at one time. Right? But the bar's really been raised, hasn't it? I mean, people expect engagement, they expect technology that, you know, that that works and works for them, . And so it, it's really, it's really made it harder for somebody to just go, oh, these virtual events are free, I'll just do it that way.

Isaac Watson (05:49): Yeah. And I think what a lot of people haven't realized is that with the tech boom that came through all the virtual event production costs for that skyrocketed too. So if you wanna do a really good hybrid event, for example, which a lot of people were really interested in doing last year, it turns out those are really expensive to do well and they take a lot of effort and a lot of planning. And so a lot of people are just kind of recoiling and backing off from that concept and trying to figure out how to do something a little simpler and a little more budget friendly.

John Jantsch (06:20): Yeah, I, I did one a hybrid event and I learned, you know, from the AV company that it was twice as complicated for them, you know? Yes. To produce, you know, rather than just turning on their cameras, go, go for it, you know, it was way more complicated and consequently way more expensive and a lot more considerations. Logistics. Are there some technologies, specifics, tools, software, things like that, that you recommend to, to businesses these days?

Isaac Watson (06:44): You know, we don't, because our focus is always on strategy first and there are so many different tools and options out there. Yeah. That we want to figure out exactly what a client's needs are for their particular event before we go shopping around for a platform or even an in-person venue or a city to, to host something in. Yeah. So we're always looking at the needs first and then finding the tools that fit within that.

John Jantsch (07:08): So talk a little more about that strategy, uh, component because that's certainly, you know, we are a marketing agency as well and that's our motto. I mean, it's strategy first. People hire us to do strategy before we'll ever take a look at their website. So, uh, talk me through a little bit of how your process then for, cuz I'm sure a lot of people will say, oh, we got an event, we're gonna have people gonna showcase this, uh, and you know, it's all, what are all then they start asking like, should we do it? What's the technology? Right? So tell me a little bit about your process for getting to the heart of an effective strategy for an event.

Isaac Watson (07:39): So we always like to look at three components that all work together to be able to produce something that's really great. Uh, first of all, you have to have a community behind what you're building. Some, a group of people who is engaged, who is ready to take that next step to connect with each other, uh, through some sort of event. You also need to look at your resources, and that's everything from your teams capacity, the time, every other product or service you have on your docket and even your budget. And then the third component is that event vision. So if you can balance your vision and kind of temper that against the community you've built and the the resources you have available to you, then you can create something within that balances it all and that works well together.

John Jantsch (08:26): So you've mentioned the word several times community, and I think a lot of people think in terms of, oh, I have this online community that likes to get together and now they wanna do an event. And a lot of events have certainly think at social media, marketing world, content marketing world. I mean those came from, you know, those types of communities, but I mean, community can be your customers, right? Or it can be people that you wanna turn into. Customers can it,

Isaac Watson (08:50): It can, the first question that I would ask someone to ask themselves is, do you actually have a community or do you have an audience? An audience can turn into a community, but it does not always want to begin with. Uh, in my book, a community is a space where the people who are gathered around your product, your service, your mission, whatever that is, they have the opportunity to share with each other, to give feedback to each other and support each other. So you've created a space where they can then form relationships on their own and support each other in that way. An audience only would be a one way, like, this is my marketing, I'm talking to them top down kind of situation. Yeah. And that's a little bit different. That's where you get into like sales events for example, right? It's really just about marketing your product or service as opposed to creating something that meets your audience's needs.

John Jantsch (09:43): Obviously you help somebody develop a strategy, you help them put the event together. How do you measure success? Do you have a set process for that or is part of the strategy to, with KPIs

Isaac Watson (09:53): Early on in the strategy process, we identify what our attendee goals are. So we work to deeply understand what the community's needs are, what they're hoping to get out of whatever event we're trying to design for the client. Uh, and then we carry that through into our post event surveys and into, you know, anecdotal feedback and, and the more qualitative experiential stuff that we gather as we're producing it. All of that comes through the end of our process with some reporting back to the client that says, okay, you know, obviously we want a great net promoter score and I know we want to know who the most successful presenters were. We also need to know how the attendees have resonated with the event and with the other people that they met. And that's much harder to track from a data standpoint. Yeah. So we have to rely on more qualitative sources for that.

John Jantsch (10:46): So this is one of those that you're gonna say, well there lots of depends, , but yes. You know, I think a lot of, a lot of people focus when they do events on, you mentioned the presenters or you know, the topics that are going to, you know, the run of show from, you know, who's gonna speak next, that kind of thing. How important are the other things like the food and the breaks and the entertainment and, you know, all the things that are not necessarily core topic.

Isaac Watson (11:12): They are all important and they have different weights. But I was just talking to someone the other day about how a bad food experience at an in-person event Yeah. Can destroy the vibe, right? I went to an event a month or two ago where they ran out of coffee in the morning and it was like, you know, faux pa, right? You don't wanna do that because then that's all people can think about. Yeah. That doesn't mean you have to go investing $400 a head a day into catering, but you have to make sure that everything, every component that you're crafting, this whole experience is a multisensory thing and that matters to the attendees and that's gonna have an impact.

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(13:09): So I, I probably should asked this earlier than now, but you know, there are different types of events, right? Not just types, but different goals, different purposes, right? So there's significant kind of categories of, I mean, a lot of times people think of, you know, product events and service events mm-hmm. and then some are just, you know, we keep mentioning ws, I'm not sure what that was. That was just like a community, you know, hug Fest event. But do you kind of look at like, is that like checkbox number one? Like what type of, you know, event, what are the goals of this? And based on that it's like, well we have to go down this path.

Isaac Watson (13:43): Mm-hmm. . Yeah. If you can identify first who you're creating the event for sure. And why it exists, then you can start to wrap around what the format of it is. I think that that, yes, you obviously have like sales or marketing oriented events, whether that's a product event, a launch. Yeah. You know, anything where you're trying to expand your audience. Uh, but then there's, I would categorize WDS as a community oriented event. It was independently organized and it was all about bringing the people together to share in this moment. It wasn't there to sell anything in particular except ideas and inspiration. Yeah. Right? Yeah, yeah. Um, much like a TEDx or a TED event or any of the other larger kind of ideas driven things. And then you have celebrations, right? Like you can have like a nonprofit will have an awards dinner to honor and celebrate their community in a different way than they would host an annual conference. Yeah.

John Jantsch (14:38): We put together half for many years, a very small but I would call hybrid event. I have a community of consultants and agencies that license our methodology. They are in the pure sense customers, but we've also created a network platform where they collaborate and do a lot of things together. And so consequently it's been pretty easy for us to bring that a core group together that wants to see each other in person, but it is, you know, it essentially is a customer event that we've built a community around. Does that make sense?

Isaac Watson (15:10): Yeah, absolutely.

John Jantsch (15:11): And it's been a terrific retention tool, quite frankly. Mm-hmm. , you know, because they get that, that's how we view it. We, in fact, we lose money every year on the actual event because we charge a small ticket price. But you know, people, you know, stay because of it.

Isaac Watson (15:25): Yeah. We had, uh, a client as an example, similar to that, uh, a couple years ago. They were a, a design prototyping startup, and they had created these tools and had this growing user base that was global, that had really formed community around themselves and they wanted to host a conference about the industry, not necessarily about their product or their tools that they were making and bring those people together. And that was the perfect example. They were customers, yes. But they were also a community.

John Jantsch (15:54): Yeah. You know, when you're, obviously not obviously, but I spent a lot of time teaching people how to integrate, you know, all their marketing, all this stuff relates to each other. But I think that there is a tendency for people to think in events like this Totally. You know, out there thing one off, you know, almost how do you get people to think in terms of the event integrating with everything else they've been doing, particularly when it comes to marketing.

Isaac Watson (16:19): Part of that comes through the resources aspect of the strategy work that we do upfront with our clients. Really looking at like, what's on your upcoming calendar? What products and services are you releasing? Yeah. Do you have new features? Do you have new, um, whatever it is that you're coming out with. I think the other piece that, that people are often surprised at when I start engaging on strategy is I wanna know everything that there is to know about how your business works. Yeah. Because if I can understand that, and then I can understand everything that there is to know about your audience and your community, then I can start to craft something that fits within that, that truly integrates with everything else that's going on in the business and supports that.

John Jantsch (16:58): So how comprehensive do you take approach or does it come down to what the client wants and what their budget is? I suppose? I mean, you've talked a lot about strategy, but We'll, if I come to you and I say, we wanna do this event, here's who they are. You know, we get the strategy down now like, Isaac, go get me the speakers, get me the venue, get me the food. I mean, do, uh, soup to nuts if that's what somebody wants.

Isaac Watson (17:17): Uh, soup to nuts is what we love. And so we wanna start with that strategy. We want to co-create that strategy with our clients. Because a lot of times I can't tell you how many times a client has come to me and they've already locked in a venue and dates and a location. And then as the process goes through, we realize that it's, it doesn't match our needs. Yeah. And we have to figure out how to pivot around that, right? Yeah. So we always wanna work with the strategy first and then carry it through. Now we also do one-off strategy. So if people can come to us and say, Hey, we're thinking of an event need kind of the concept and the the preliminary design done, and then maybe they have an in-house team that can actually execute on the event, or they have another relationship with an event planner who can actually do the implementation. Great. They'll run with our strategy and use that to their advantage.

John Jantsch (18:04): Where, where do you suppose the term soup to nuts came from? I'm gonna have to look that up. couldn't get past that. Look into the future. I mean, are you telling people here's some of the trends that you need to be aware of, or here's what's coming.

Isaac Watson (18:17): I'm fairly trend resistant. Yeah. There's a lot of talk, especially within the industry and especially with where we are, post-intro pandemic, whatever we're calling it these days about what's next to me. If you can lean on your strategy first, the that strategy will be valid regardless of where the industry is going. It's about figuring out how you can actually implement that in the moment with the group that you're doing it for. So taking that kind of trend-agnostic approach. Obviously, you know, when it comes to choosing entertainment or uh, specific activities, there are trends in what people are into these days. Right. Uh, and we'll follow those. But from a core design and and implementation standpoint, there, there is no trend that's really going to affect, uh, how we do what we do.

John Jantsch (19:07): Well, I'm going to break with you there and make my own trend. I, you know, what I'm seeing a lot of, I'm seeing a lot of desire, at least I don't know that necessarily everybody's putting 'em on. I'm seeing a lot of desire for smaller, more intimate, more personal events. You know, not the 3000 person thing, but the 50 people who are very passionate about a certain thing. And in fact, when we start back to in-person events, you know, post pandemic that's going up, it's like they so desired to be in that room with people that they were really passionate, you know, kind of on fire group because you know, they went against the odds and did say, you know, a lot of people weren't willing to do. And I think a lot of people are, are pretty hungry for that.

Isaac Watson (19:48): Yeah, I would agree wholeheartedly that these shared or intimate experiences are more highly valued these days. Yeah. Especially because people have a lot more scrutiny around how and where they will spend their time in

John Jantsch (20:02): It. Yeah. I think that kind of knee jerk, oh, we have to be at these five conferences and we have to send our whole team. I think those days are probably over because I think people realized, wait, nobody died, , you know, we didn't send people No. You know, we're still here. Right. So I think now you're absolutely right. People are saying, if I'm gonna invest that it's gonna be worth it. Yeah. Which quite frankly, ups the game certainly. Or ups, the raises the bar for people putting on events, doesn't it?

Isaac Watson (20:26): Yeah, it certainly does.

John Jantsch (20:28): All right, Isaiah, I appreciate you taking a few moments to stop by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. You wanna invite people where they could connect with you and find out to maybe a little more about kickass conferences there. I said ask three times in my show,

Isaac Watson (20:39): , and you didn't even have to bleep it. So we have our podcast, uh, called Make It Kickass, which is all about building great experiences for communities. We have a new season coming out in September and have a lot of great guests on board for that. You can also visit our website

John Jantsch (20:59): Awesome. Well, again, I appreciate you taking a few moments to stop by the show, and hopefully we'll run into you out there on the road someday.

Isaac Watson (21:05): Sounds good. Thanks John. Hey,

John Jantsch (21:06): And one final thing before you go. You know how I talk about marketing strategy, strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that, what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the Marketing Strategy Assessment. You can find it,, dot co. Check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketing as I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.

This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by the HubSpot Podcast Network.

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